I have been reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and have found a tremendous amount of material that I disagreed with. While I will address Aslan’s work in a future post, I wanted to offer a thought I had while reading his thoughtful book.
What is more damaging to the Christian faith: a book aimed at knocking out the divinity of Christ or a pseudo-Christian work like Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen?
Think it over for a second and I’ll give my opinion.
It is definitely the latter. Before you throw your tomes at me, let me unpack my bombastic statement.
Christianity in History
Historically speaking, Christianity grew and flourished in a hostile environment. Amid the religiously diverse environment of the Roman Empire, Christianity stood squarely as monotheistic, evangelistic, and Trinitarian. It spread across social categories rather quickly, even if persecution ran rampant across several different leadership regimes. Both Jew and Gentile alike attacked the Christian faith from the first century on; however, it withstood the storm.
Christianity in Debate
Whether it was rooted in the Enlightenment or in secular Communist regimes, intellectual questions have not and will not decimate the Church. For every skeptical voice, there are able statesmen and women who can answer the charges (For example, NT Wright’s work easily handles the issues raised by Aslan).
On the other hand, the Church from its infancy on has been susceptible to the allure of false teaching from within. I distinctly recall the moment when I realized this. I was in my New Testament Survey class at Vanguard University when I was confronted with the textual truth that many of the letters in the NT were addressed to confront the false beliefs creeping into the Early Church. Racial tension, gnosticism, abuse, and so many other terrible things poisoned various churches across the Mediterranean. To put it differently, the churches died of a thousand internal cuts instead of one major assault.
Danger of Pseudo-Christianity
Pseudo-Christian works will come along arguing for material blessing if we only follow Jesus [and pay the author millions of dollars]. They will come along revealing expanded narration of near-death experiences when all we need for salvation can be found in Scripture alone. False teachers and snake oil salesmen alike will come along and tell you that you have to do more, be more, try harder, and put on a good show in order to earn good feelings.
I will gladly prefer the Church to be bombarded with New Atheists, ex-fundamentalists, skeptics, and angry comedians instead of the rampant pseudo-Christian works that are passed off as orthodox. Again I’ll say: show me a challenge to the deity of Christ and take away the hopeless work of televangelists! The latter category enslaves the people of Christ in order to add one more cheap car to an already crowded garage.
Christianity Today ran a piece that noted 3 heresies* Evangelical Christians were most likely to believe. They were:
Jesus was not truly human
Our behavior does not matter
Racism is gone
The first point was eye opening to me, because it shows how we tend to overreact to certain questions. In defense of Jesus divinity, we imply that Jesus borrowed his humanity for a period of time, like how I borrowed a tux for my wedding. Contrary to this false notion, Jesus became fully man and if we place our trust in him, we are assured that we will be coheirs with Jesus.
The second point is denying that character matters, that we can be saved without any sanctification. In my younger days (perhaps 10 years ago or so), I used to think Jesus could be your Savior (mere fire insurance) but not necessarily your Lord (behavior does not matter). I’ve since backtracked on that idea and find that statement completely idiotic (sorry, 20 year old Jeremy!) because sanctification matters. My character will never be perfect, but it needs to be changed because of my present standing with Christ.
The final point is the belief that we are in a post-racial society. I believe that we have not fully arrived at the peaceful place of racial and ethnic harmony. There is still deep-seated racial animosity, even within the Christian Church, and while Christ reconciled us to God, the reconciliation with each other is not yet complete.
This article made me think, what is our favorite heresy as evangelicals?
For me, I think we are prone to enter into Pelagianism— that we can pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps and make our way into God’s favor. Our national heritage sets us up for this false theology, especially given our immigrant, free-market culture. But the narrative of Scripture is forceful in articulating that we are reconciled to God in Christ out of his abundant mercy. As Paul would say, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive. We cannot earn or work our way into God’s favor, instead it is an unmerited gift from God.
What heresies do you find evangelicals are prone to fall into?
*Heresy can be defined this way: Ideas achieve status of heresy in Christian tradition because they are thought by the Church to be wrong rather than right teaching (doctrine). A heretic is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches mut be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (universally valid) Christian faith. (From Heresies and How to Avoid Them)
I am in the middle of preparing a brief message on the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark and it reminded about the author’s style in the composition of this account. During my preparation, I was reading in a commentary about the questions surrounding when to date this particular gospel. It ultimately comes down to the rebellion of the Jewish people against the Roman forces and the resulting destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Due to the lack of comments about the destruction of the temple and other clues, scholars place the composition of this book during the Jewish rebellion or before. 50s-60s A.D. is a safe bet for the earliest gospel account (Paul gets the earliest writer of the New Testament award).
Placing the context of the gospel is important for the preacher and leaders within the church (lay-leaders, not necessarily those on staff at a church) because questions will come up. There will be questions concerning the Gospel of Thomas or Judas. There are fragments that seem to imply that Jesus had a wife and there will undoubtedly be many more compromising documents surfacing. I am convinced by the likes of NT Wright that we need to know not only God’s Word, but the context surrounding it.
We need to understand the context and dig into that first century so that we can enrich our own faith and defend the faith when National Geographic runs stories on the Gospel of Judas. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is not just our pastor’s job or the job of a seminary professor. No, it is our job as the Church. It is your job as the faithful member of your local church and as a leader within the community. There are so many tools at our disposal now, I beg you to consider to dig into the depths of the Christian faith.
What has helped you explore the depths of the faith?